Argument

Watching Modi, the Maestro, at Work

Watching Modi, the Maestro, at Work

SHAHJAHANPUR, India — The distance from New Delhi to Shahjahanpur, a town in northern Uttar Pradesh, is slightly less than 200 miles; a four-lane highway runs most of the way. Yet I can tell you from painful experience that the trip takes six or seven hours. Because India’s highways, with a very few exceptions, also serve as local roads, the taxi I took earlier this week had to jostle for space with three-wheelers, horse- and bullock-carts, bicycles and motorcycles, and groaning trucks listing way over to one side with mighty loads. For tourists, this is the cacophonous, all-at-onceness that is India’s magic. For Indians, the choked highways constitute a colossal loss of productivity and a humiliating failure of infrastructure investment.

I was heading to Shahjahanpur to hear Narendra Modi speak. Modi is the charismatic prime ministerial candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which seems likely to win a plurality of votes in elections now being held, and thus to replace the Congress party in Delhi. Modi is many things, but the thing that may well make him India’s next prime minister is that he is credited with stoking economic growth in Gujarat, the Western state of which he is chief minister. If anyone can get the bullock carts out of the way of the taxis, and release exasperated citizens from the tangle of bureaucracy and corruption, it is him.

Fortunately for me, Modi runs as late as most Indian politicians. I arrived in Shahjahanpur more than two hours after the rally was set to begin, and Modi had only just begun speaking. A vast crowd, which a party official later pegged for me at 150,000-200,000 (it seemed smaller), had gathered in a dusty plaza. It was blazingly hot. The candidate was all but invisible on a distant stage framed in saffron, with saffron-colored flags whipping in the hot breeze. Modi’s voice — hectoring, mocking, sly — boomed from a great row of loudspeakers.

Shahjahanpur is a "reserved constituency" — set aside, under India’s elaborate affirmative action laws, for Dalits, the caste bottom-dwellers once known as "untouchables." Modi himself comes from a "backward" caste, several rungs above the Dalits but many more below the Brahmins who have long ruled India, including the Nehru-Gandhi family which has dominated the Congress party for generations. Modi used to sell tea at a railway station, and he never stops needling the Gandhis about their lofty status. The day of the rally happened to be the birthday of B.R. Ambedkar, a great Dalit leader of India’s founding generation, and Modi informed the crowd, somewhat illogically, that it was only owing to Ambedkar that "a kid who used to sell tea is standing in front of you." And yet Jawaharlal Nehru, he claimed (also on dubious evidence) "never liked Ambedkar."

Modi is a maestro of class resentment. Congress bigwigs, he insists, feel "ashamed" of having to compete against a mere "worker." With a gift for homespun political rhetoric one can only admire, he has described Rahul Gandhi, the somewhat reluctant family scion and his challenger, as "a fish in the aquarium," while he, Modi, is "a fish in the sea." Modi is an adroit fisherman in the sea of caste and community. The BJP has traditionally drawn both leaders and voters from the upper castes; Modi is making a strong pitch for Dalits and other backward castes.

That is traditional Indian politics. But Modi is also doing something quite unusual. He has sought to turn the parliamentary contest into an individual race between himself and Rahul Gandhi, even though — or perhaps because — the latter has refused to promise that he would serve as prime minister if Congress formed the government. Modi is running, in effect, a one-sided presidential contest. He is running on his "story," as an American presidential candidate would do. "Friends," he said in one speech, "I am not pessimistic and the reason is that I have seen my mother doing the domestic cleaning, dish washing in the neighborhood households; she brought up and cultured her kids without losing hope."

Modi appeals to India’s new class of strivers, its "aspirational" youth who do not accept that their destiny must be confined by the accident of birth. His deepest narrative is the narrative of "development" — the story of a poor nation joining the world of the rich. If the chief subject of his speech in Shahjahanpur was the indignities visited upon Ambedkar by the Nehru-Gandhi clan, the secondary subject was potatoes. In Uttar Pradesh, he said, "farmers are afraid of cultivating potatoes" because the price has dropped so low. In Gujarat (his home state), "farmers used to face the same problems you are facing." But after the Modi government instituted "scientific methods of farming" there, he told the crowd, agriculturists soon found they received high prices for their potatoes. One Guajarati farmer, claimed Modi, set a world record for potato productivity. And yet the UP chief minister, Akhilesh Singh Yadav, "says that he won’t let Uttar Pradesh become like Gujarat!" he said as the crowd roared and hissed.

What makes Modi so powerful a candidate is this convergence between personal narrative and policy achievement. He has raised himself; he has raised Gujarat. His critics claim that his record as chief minister over the last dozen years is largely an illusion, that Gujarat has catered to corporate interests while doing little for the poor. Yet the state is widely considered one of India’s best-governed, and is among a group which has separated itself from the sorry state of much of the country, including Uttar Pradesh. In any case, voters believe it. The knot of men who gathered around me after the speech were convinced that Modi would raise the price of farm products while lowering inflation — admittedly a tough combination to pull off.

Modi presents himself as the incarnation of ordinary Indians’ ambitions and frustrations. But what about their anger? Modi was, of course, the chief minister when Gujarat experienced Hindu-Muslim riots that left at least 1,200 dead in 2002, and he is widely blamed for failing to intercede. He was raised in the Hindu-nationalist and paramilitary culture of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, and is regarded with profound loathing both by India’s secular elite and by Muslims who fear he views them as second-class citizens. In the hustings, Modi himself makes only the most subtle gestures toward what is known as Hindutva, a sort of Hindu nationalism, complaining of rampant "cow slaughter" or adverting to dark Pakistani forces. But the BJP’s manifesto calls for the building of a Hindu temple on a site where 20 years ago RSS cadres tore down a mosque brick by brick, sparking sectarian violence. Modi appears to be taking the high road while leaving the low one to lesser figures.

After the speech ended, and Modi lifted off in his helicopter, I forded the vast stream of humanity, snaked through the insane traffic bucking and honking outside the maidan, and drove to the local BJP headquarters in the dusty warren of downtown Shahjahanpur. There, I talked with a group of local officials and party volunteers. Ashis Singh, who was working for Krishna Raj, the local candidate for parliament, said that Modi’s message had been "development." Hindutva, he said, was not part of the campaign. When I asked about notoriously inflammatory comments which had gotten the party’s campaign chief in Uttar Pradesh banned from the state, Singh said he had been too busy working for Raj to pay attention to such things.

Then Yashpal Singh, a schoolteacher and local volunteer, pushed forward and said, "The problem with the Congress is corruption and fake secularism." Congress leaders, he said, were catering to the Muslim vote in the name of warding off BJP communalism. When I asked what he meant by that, Ashis Singh interceded: "He means that Congress is exploiting Muslims as a vote bank."

Actually, that wasn’t quite what Yashpal Singh meant. "How many Muslims fled from Gujarat after 2002?" he asked. The answer was none. "And yet more than five lakh — 500,000 — Hindus fled from Kashmir because of mistreatment by Muslims." All the terrorist incidents in the country had been caused by Muslims, he told me. And yet India was 85 percent Hindu. The schoolteacher was just getting warmed up when some of the other men pulled him back in his chair.

It is the view of many Indians — and the oft-repeated theme of Congress speeches and ads — that Narendra Modi is playing the role of BJP superego while the party’s RSS id boils away underneath, peeking through only at inopportune moments. If Modi becomes prime minister, they say, the mask will fall away, revealing the autocratic Hindu nationalist beneath. Maybe that’s hyperbolic, but it’s hardly absurd. In any case, Modi has played his role so deftly that India, and the world, are probably going to have a chance to find out the truth before long.